Now we're turning in our Bibles this evening to Romans chapter 1. You will remember that last week we looked at verses 16 and 17 of Romans chapter 1. This evening, God willing, we'll be looking just at one verse, verse 18, under the title 'The Wrath of God'. We'll begin reading at verse 16 through to verse 18:
Paul, writing to the believers in the city of Rome, says: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness".
I did share with you last Sunday evening that the book of Romans is an inspired explanation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What Paul the apostle is doing for us is, he is describing how a man can be right with God. His thesis is found in verse 16, what he sets out to prove is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation, it is the only method whereby a man can be saved. Then in verse 17 we saw that he introduces us to the righteousness which comes from God, and that is, of course, a theme that he develops from chapter 3 verse 21 through to chapter 5 verse 21.
But what Paul is presenting to us tonight in verse 18, as we will see in subsequent weeks in the following verses, is the overwhelming evidence of man's sinfulness. So though the theme of the book of Romans is the righteousness of God, Paul begins in verse 18 showing us the unrighteousness of man. Now, why does he do that? Well, his purpose in doing that, I believe, is to underscore how desperately man needs the righteousness that only God can provide. So he presents God's case, first of all against the irreligious or the immoral - pagans.
In verses 18 to 32 of chapter 1 he speaks, many believe, about the Gentiles who are sold in idolatry and various forms of immorality - though he doesn't mention the Gentiles because the descriptions of the sinner that are found in those verses can apply to all men, wherever they come from, whatever particular colour or creed they aspire to. Then later on in chapter 2 through to chapter 3 about verse 18, he speaks about the religious, and how even the religious are guilty before God. Whilst you may not be a Gentile, you may even be an outwardly religious Jew, yet Paul concludes that whoever you are, wherever you're from, whatever you have done, that all men alike deserve God's judgment - all men are guilty before God.
So if you like, in verse 18 of chapter 1 Paul is bringing us into God's court room, and he is indicting all mankind, Jew and Gentile, religious, immoral pagan, indicting them as sinners before a holy God. His goal is, as Romans 3:19 tells us, that every mouth may be stopped, and that all the world may become guilty before God. Now the question is obviously posed to us tonight in the light of that: why does Paul need to present evidence of man's sinfulness? The simple answer is because many do not believe they are sinners - many in Paul's day and many in our day. Therefore a Gospel that Paul is presenting, which he claims is the power of God unto salvation if you believe in it, is pretty useless, it is irrelevant to those who don't believe they're lost in the first place! That's why, for most people in society today, the Gospel is irrelevant - because they deny that they are sinners. Why do you need a Gospel to save you if you've no need of being saved because you're not lost?
So, in order to convince men of their need of this Gospel, Paul needs to convince them in his argument that they are lost, that they are sinners, they are guilty before God and they are under the wrath of God. An evangelist by the name of Ray Comfort illustrates it like this: 'Imagine I told you I've got some good news for you, somebody has just paid a £25,000 speeding fine on your behalf - what would you think? You probably would react by saying, 'What are you talking about? That's not good news, it doesn't make any sense, I haven't got a £25,000 speeding fine''. To you it would seem foolishness, but more than that it might even be offensive because I'm insinuating that you have broken the law when you don't think that you have. However, if I put it this way it might make more sense: On the way to this meeting this evening you broke the law. The law clocked you travelling at 55 mph through an area set aside for a blind children's convention. Along the way there were ten clear road signs stipulating that 15 mph was the legal limit. Therefore the law is about to set in motion, taking its course to punish you for breaking it. But all of a sudden, someone who you don't know stepped in and paid the fine for you. You are very fortunate.
Ray Comfort is making the point, and I hope that you can see it tonight, that in order to make you see your need of the Gospel, you must first realise that you have done wrong. In order to understand the good news, that it is good news, you've got to grasp the bad news that before God's holiness you are guilty. If you don't understand that, the Gospel is foolishness, it might even be offensive because you don't understand that you're guilty and have broken God's holy law. So if I came along to you, as often is done even on the street, and say: 'You know, God loves you and Christ died for you', it's foolishness! It's like saying that your fine has been paid, without knowing that you have caused the offence. So Paul is saying that you need to understand God's law, and you need to understand that you have broken it, and you need to understand that by breaking it you have made God angry with you.
Do you understand it? You see, most people think on the whole that they're pretty decent. They may not be perfect, but as far as they're concerned they have not done any great wrong, and since they're not conscious of any real disastrous sin in their life they feel that they must be right with God. God couldn't possibly be angry with them! But for Paul the significant thing is not that people have met their own standards, but that people have not met God's standards! This problem is perpetuated by ministers and so-called Christians who don't preach that men are sinners, they don't make people aware of the consequences of being sinners. Often, even in a Gospel presentation like this, the choice is given to people in a sort of quasi-religious form: 'If you keep on living your way of life, well, that's only life; but if you want life to the full, and life at its best, and better life, you need to trust Christ'. It's this idea that He'll transform your life into something better than it is now, even though you might be already enjoying yourself a little bit. That is not the Gospel.
The Gospel is the choice between life and death, between heaven and hell, between God's righteousness provided in Christ and God's wrath for those who reject His righteousness in Jesus! Paul is reasoning that if the Gospel is going to have any affect - that is, save people - people must first know their need of it. The best way to make them aware how much they desperately need the Gospel is to show them how angry God is with sin and with sinners, tell them about God's wrath. When was the last time you heard a sermon on God's wrath?
Well, I'm going to break up this text, verse 18, into three headings which are found within the text. First of all: what it is; secondly: where it is; and thirdly: why it is. God's wrath, what it is. Let me say first of all what it is not: God's wrath is not an impulsive outburst of anger that's aimed erratically or capriciously against people who God just doesn't like. When we think of anger, we often think of an emotional rage, that is not the wrath of God - perhaps the problem is our understanding of the word. In the Bible God's wrath is a settled determined response of a righteous God against sin. It is a steady and a steadfast, absolute opposition to all that is evil - that is right throughout the whole Bible. It's documented in the Old Testament that God is presented as a God who loves righteousness and hates wickedness. In Psalm 76 verse 7 we read that the Psalmist says to God: 'Thou, even thou, art to be feared: and who may stand in thy sight when once thou art angry?'. Psalm 90, written by Moses, verses 7 and 8: 'For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance'.
Now many people have a false conception, they feel that the Old Testament God is a God of wrath; but the New Testament God, to the contrary, is a God of love who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. Of course, God is a God of love, and John 3:16 is that famous verse that describes God, who loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. But what many overlook is that where that text is found, John 3:16, at the end of that chapter, John 3:36, we read: 'He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him'.
Scripture reveals that God is, yes, a God of love, but He is also a God of wrath, a God who has a settled, determined, steadfast, absolute opposition to all that is wicked and sinful. Scripture never reveals one attribute of God at the expense of another, and God's love does not contradict God's wrath - in fact, if anything, it compliments it. God's wrath is essential for a right understanding of His love, and of His grace and forgiveness. Let me make sure you understand what I'm saying: in the Gospel it's all about God's mercy, God's compassion, God's lovingkindness, His forgiveness - but mercy is absolutely meaningless in relation to justice if there is no such a thing as God's anger. I looked up the dictionary definition of 'mercy', and it simply 'compassion shown to offenders'. You cannot know mercy unless you have offended. So any attempt to in some way retain a doctrine of divine love, that God loves everyone, without a doctrine of divine wrath is completely illogical and irrational. A God who cannot be angry is a God who cannot have mercy!
We often think, you see, erroneously that the opposite of love is wrath. No, the opposite of love is hatred. God's wrath is in complete agreement with His love, it is essential to the character of God. As one has put it: 'As long as God is God, He cannot behold with indifference that His creation is destroyed and His holy will trodden underfoot. Therefore He meets sin with His mighty and annihilating reaction'. Do you know what the real problem is for us when we contemplate the wrath of God? It is not that it is illogical or does not agree with God's love, it is that it is uncomfortable for us as sinners - that is the problem. James Montgomery Boice put it this way: 'The wrath of God is not ignoble, rather it is too noble, it is too just, it is too perfect, it is this that bothers us'. It frightens us, because the wrath of God is as pure as the holiness of God, and when God is angry that means that He is perfectly angry - and that means that when He is displeased there is every reason that He should be! When His displeasure is toward our personal sins we get uncomfortable.
Now, there is great hypocrisy on man's part when it comes to God's wrath and justice. Let me illustrate it like this to you: I don't know when you do your shopping, but say it's tomorrow, Monday morning. You drive down in your new car to the supermarket, and as is often the case somebody backs into the side of your car. This gentleman won't allow you to claim on his insurance, although he is clearly at fault, and so you decide that you take him to court. Finally in the courtroom they admit that they were in the wrong, but then they express to the judge these words: 'But my Lord, I didn't mean it' - and he gets off! Now we could almost envisage this happening today in our legal system, but if it did you would be up in arms, wouldn't you? 'But he admitted that he did it, it doesn't matter whether he meant it or not! He did it, that's not justice!'. Some men, whether in a football stadium or sitting in front of the television, if the referee makes the wrong decision they blow a fuse! 'That's not fair, where was the justice in that call?', yet when it comes to God, He's not allowed any justice at all! He's not allowed to be just! The referee is allowed to have it, the justice is allowed to have it, the policeman is allowed to wield it, but not God.
What it is: it is God's anger towards sin. Where it is: verse 18 says, 'The wrath of God is revealed from heaven', that means it's holy, 'against all ungodliness' - but this is the word I want you to notice, it is 'revealed' from heaven. That literally could be translated 'constantly revealed', the word essentially means 'to uncover something, to make something visible or to make known'. Now God's wrath is revealed from heaven in two ways, and I want you please to remember this. First of all: the self-inflicted consequences of sin. The context of this chapter, as we'll see in subsequent weeks, is where God's word is speaking directly to those in immorality. In verse 24 we see that some of the self-inflicted consequences of sin for these pagans was that God gave them over, verse 24, to uncleanness. He gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves - sexual immorality. In verse 26 we see another self-inflicted consequence, that God then 'gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature' - lesbianism. In verse 28, another self-inflicted consequence: He gave them up to a reprobate mind, 'even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient'.
In verse 27 we actually read that there was a physical consequence: 'Likewise also the men', homosexuality, 'leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet' - in other words, the self-inflicted consequences of their sin, STDs, sexually transmitted diseases. This is the law of sowing and reaping. In other words, if you sow maize in a field you're not going to produce wheat. It is the natural consequence of violating God's universal moral law, and if you sin against God you will reap a whirlwind. I heard someone say recently: 'If you sow your wild oats you can't pray for a failed harvest'. The law of the harvest dictates that what a man sows, that will he also reap, for God is not mocked.
Are you sowing sin before a holy God? Are you reaping the self-inflicted consequences? It could take one hundred, one million forms - but you know all about it, that is what the wise man meant when he said: 'The way of the transgressor is hard'. You are reaping that way every step of your life, because of the self-inflicted consequences of sin. Now that's indirect, but it's true that God occasionally breaks through into human history and experience to show His extreme displeasure at man's sin, the direct divine intervention of God. Genesis 7 tells us that there, just after the beginning of all time, that man got to such a peak of sinfulness, the imaginations of his heart were only evil continually, that God said: 'I've had enough, I must wipe man off the face of the earth', and He sent a flood. In Genesis 19 we have the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and many of these features in Romans 1 were found there also - homosexuality and sexual immorality. Again God, in a very graphic sense, sent fire and brimstone upon those cities in judgment because their sin had reached its stench to heaven.
Let me say this to you: there are the self-inflicted consequences of sin that we reap in everyday personal experience, and there are these direct interventions of God that we have in Old Testament history, but the most graphic revelation of God's holy wrath against sin was when it was poured out upon His only begotten Son in divine judgment at the cross. If you want to know where God's wrath has been revealed from heaven, look to the cross! The Psalmist, prophetically speaking of Christ, said in Psalm 88:7: 'Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves'. When we look at the cross we see the most violent and most mysterious outpouring of God's wrath. It is wonderful when we believe in Christ, it is Good Friday when we put our trust and faith in Christ alone and avail of His righteousness that He gives freely to those who trust in Him - but yet what I want you to see tonight, particularly if you're not a believer and you're estranged from God's forgiveness, is that the cross, more than anything, is the most terrible warning to the unrepentant.
Why is that? Simply because if God spared not His Son on whom was laid - only laid, imputed now - the sins of others, He was not dying for His own sins, He's taking your sin and my sin as His own. If God spared not His Son in those circumstances, will He spare sinners whose sins are their own?
My friend, God's wrath - where is it? It is seen in everyday life in the circumstances where you reap what you sow in sin. It is seen in some cataclysmic divine interventions of God in history, particularly in the Old Testament. It is seen at Calvary, where Jesus is dying and exhausting the wrath of God because He loves sinners. But, my friend, I want you to note that in verse 18 that word 'revealed' from heaven, speaking of the wrath of God, is in the present tense. That means that it is being revealed now, constantly revealed. People often project God's wrath to a future day, they talk about the last judgment when the books will be opened - and that is true. Hebrews 9:27 says: 'It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment' - but death will not end God's wrath. Revelation 20 verse 15 tells us that there is a lake of fire, whosoever is not found in the book of life will be cast into the lake of fire. But have you ever thought, my friend, of how God's wrath is being constantly revealed now, at this moment. Matthew Henry, the puritan, put it like this: 'As God's mercies are new every morning towards His people, so His anger is new every morning against the wicked'. The Psalmist in Psalm 7:11 said: 'God judges the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day'.
My friend, if you're not clothed in the righteousness of Christ, God's wrath abides on you now, God is angry with you know - but the good news of the Gospel, when you understand that, is that the good news is also in the present tense. Verse 17 speaks of the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith, that's the present tense. God's salvation that can clothe us to make us worthy in God's eyes to come into His presence, it is being revealed now, you can have it now. In chapter 5 and verse 8 God demonstrates His love toward us, reveals His love 'in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us'. That is also in the present tense - God, though Christ died 2000 years ago, is still communicating His love through the cross now - it's constantly being revealed in the Gospel!
My friend, you are under God's wrath now! But God's righteousness in Christ is available to you now, and the great question that poses to you tonight is: what is my response? That is where it is: it is here now. We've heard what it is, but finally why it is. Maybe you're still doubtful that you deserve God's wrath. Verse 18 shows us what God's wrath is vented against - two aspects of sin: ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. God has revealed His wrath against those two things. Now ungodliness is sin against God - un-god-liness. A lack of reverence, devotion to, and worship of the true God. It's having a defective relationship with God. It may be that you disregard His existence, you're an atheist or someone who says 'I just don't know', agnostic, or it may be a refusal to retain the knowledge of God in your mind. You believe He's there, but you just don't want to think about Him, you don't want to answer to Him.
Then this second word is 'unrighteousness', and that, if you like, is sin against man - it is the result of ungodliness. If you don't have a right relationship with God, you'll not have a right relationship with mankind. This is a lack of conformity in your thoughts, in your words, in your deeds to the character and the law of God. It's the condition of not being straight, not being right with God or with others according to God standards, but even at times according to the standards of men. Here is Paul's point: God's wrath is revealed from heaven against ungodliness, sins against God; and against unrighteousness, sins against mankind. In other words, sin, whatever kind it may be, will not go unpunished. Whether it is against God or men, ungodliness or unrighteousness, these two cover both tables of the law. The first five commandments, our duty toward God: no other gods before the living God; no images; do not take the name of the Lord in vain; remember the Sabbath day; honour your father and your mother. Then the next are toward man: do not kill; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not covet. God-ward and man-ward, God is angry at transgressions of His law whatever form they take! All ungodliness and unrighteousness, no exceptions, nothing overlooked - in other words, we cannot say that God does not mind some evils, He is angry toward them all!
Then we see that He is also angry at those who hold the truth in unrighteousness. That word 'hold' means 'hold down, or suppress, or hinder the truth' - in other words, people who know the truth about God. He outlines for us, as we'll see in verse 19 through to chapter 2, that in conscience men know God. God has written His law on their heart so that we know what is right and what is wrong. In creation, as Graham has already alluded to, in chapter 1 verse 20 we see that God's fingerwork is written across the whole universe! But also in God's word, the revelation of Himself and His Son and the Scriptures, it's irrefutable - yet there are men who resist it, who oppose God's truth, holding fast to their sin. They do not allow God's truth to work in their lives, and like the Psalmist says in Psalm 14: 'The fool has said in his heart, There is no God'. John put it in chapter 3:19 that men love darkness rather than light, this is the condemnation that has come upon them.
Are you a person who suppresses God's truth in your life in order to live your own life the way that you want, and in order to avoid the conviction that comes from knowing God's truth? How do you know if you've done it? You're sitting here: 'How do I know if I'm a person who suppresses God's truth in my life, and God's wrath is upon me?' - very simple. When the still small voice of conscience speaks to you about wrong, and you disregard it, God's wrath is upon you. Next, when you hear that voice, and you don't just discard it but you thwart it, you try to do away with it completely. Then eventually the next phase is that that conscience becomes systematically deadened, seared, sterilised, and the truth of God which God left with you and left in you is completely obstructed, until you get to the position where you hardly know right from wrong, good from evil - are you doing this now, my friend? Your understanding is darkened, the Bible says, you're alienated from God and the wrath of God is upon you!
Oh, what God's wrath is I could never explain. Where it is is not only in hell, but it's on you now if you're outside of Christ. You know the reason why it is, particularly if you're a person who has known God's truth and has suppressed its influence in your life. Let me say to you tonight, as Thomas Watson the puritan put it, 'Sinners may oppose God's ways, but not His wrath'. You can suppress His truth now, you can have your innings now, but the day of God is coming soon. The essence of God and administration of His wrath is basically giving sinners what they chose, nothing more, nothing less.
One day the governor, Felix, stood before the apostle Paul. 'Felix came with his wife Drusilla, which was a Jewess, he sent for Paul, and heard him concerning the faith in Christ', and as it says in the book of Acts, Paul 'reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee'. Felix trembled at God's wrath, but in the end he chose it. You might tremble tonight at God's wrath, even God's wrath on Christ that has provided a way for you to be saved - make sure, my friend, you don't choose God's wrath over God's righteousness by faith in Jesus.
Father, we thank You for this evening, and we thank You most of all for the Lord Jesus, for His great provision as He exhausted, soaked up the wrath of God for us on that centre cross, shedding His blood that we might be forgiven and cleansed, and never lift up our eyes in hell. Yet Father, we know that that wrath is still upon those who are impenitent, and have never turned from their sins and believed the Gospel. Lord, we pray tonight that this would be the evening when some soul will see their sins on Jesus, and their faith and trust in Him, and go on their way rejoicing that their sins have been forgiven. Those of us who are converted give You our heartfelt, deep thanks for so great salvation. Thank You for ever saving us from wrath, in Jesus' name. Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Evangelical Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the second recording in his 'The Gospel Explained' series, entitled "The Wrath Of God" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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